By Andrew Coyne - Monday, May 10, 2010 - 107 Comments
Three days after the British election, the situation is as murky as ever, with three parties negotiating over possible power-sharing agreements and any number of factions within each party weighing in with their views. Meanwhile, the party leaders, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, are struggling to maintain control of their parties after an election that it is widely agreed all three lost. Here’s a quick guide to the leaders, the bargaining positions, and the stakes:
- Brown: the biggest loser in the election, the one whose position is most exposed, and therefore the one most desperate to make a deal. He’s in a position to offer a referendum on electoral reform to the Lib Dems to stay in power, where Cameron is not, since reform would probably not hurt Labour as much as it would the Conservatives. But many members of his own party want him out, as evidently does Clegg. How long could such a rickety “coalition of the losers,” propped up by a ragtag band of nationalist parties, stay in power? And if Brown were replaced at its helm? Then instead of a Prime Minister who had just lost an election, Britain would have one who had not even contested it.
- Cameron: the closest thing to a winner of the election, the only one to increase his seat count, and by the largest number of seats for any Conservative leader since 1931, he is nevertheless in a curiously weakened position, having fallen short of the majority that seemed within reach before the campaign. Cameron’s Tories took the biggest hit from Clegg’s rise after the first debate, and his failure to deliver a majority, having watered down or played down the more Thatcherite policies of his predecessors, has emboldened his critics within the party. He therefore has limited room to manoeuvre in negotiating with the Lib Dems, most particularly on the issue of electoral reform, which most Tories believe would end of their party’s hopes of ever governing again.
- Clegg: the surprise loser, having dominated the middle part of the campaign, he was unable to deliver the votes on election day that most polls said his party was headed for. He is wary of a deal with Labour, yet is limited in his ability to deliver his party in negotiations with the Tories — not only by the suspicions of his party’s left wing, whose natural affinity is more with Labour, but by party rules requiring him to obtain the membership’s approval. On the other hand, a deal with the Tories is more likely to hold, and comes with less peril of offending public opinion. He probably cannot get electoral reform from the Tories, but can get some of his party’s platform enacted, plus some juicy cabinet posts.
So: does Clegg roll the dice on Labour’s promise of a referendum on electoral reform, one that could permanently transform the Lib Dems electoral chances, at the cost of propping up a party that has just been roundly rejected at the polls? Or does he take the safer, more limited route of a coalition with the Conservatives, at the cost of passing on perhaps the best shot he will ever have at electoral reform?
Answer: probably neither. The risks of a deal with Labour are too great. And there is likely too much opposition within both the Conservative and Lib Dem parties to a formal coalition, especially given their differences over electoral reform. Clegg will be mindful of the history of coalition governments: the smaller partner rarely emerges the better for it. For their part, many Tories would prefer to strike off on their own with a minority government, Canadian-style, calculating that the option of a Labour-LibDem coalition is safely off the table. Some Tories would even prefer the party remain in opposition, reasoning that any coalition of the other two parties would inevitably fail, amid much unseeemly horsetrading and acrimony, making them look steadfast and principled by comparison.
But the most probable outcome is a limited electoral pact known as “confidence and supply.” In exchange for some relatively minor concessions on policy, the Lib Dems would agree to support the Conservatives (or at least not vote against them) on supply (money) bills and on confidence motions — that is, they would not support any move to bring the government down, for some fixed interval. That allows both parties to keep a respectable distance from each other, while ensuring a period of stable government, of the kind needed to tackle the country’s mounting fiscal crisis and calm financial markets.
Anyway, we’ll know soon enough — possibly as early as this morning.
UPDATE: Gordon Brown has just taken one for the team, offering to stand down as Labour leader by September. Formal talks are now to begin on a Lib-Lab coalition. Presumably this improves Lib Dems’ negotiating position with the Conservatives, though only if a) it’s perceived they would actually go through with it, and b) it is not anticipated to be a disaster. How will the Conservatives respond?
UPPERDATE: The Conservatives have offered a referendum on the so-called Alternative Vote, which is something short of proportional representation, though it is an improvement on the present system. Voters mark their ballots in order of preference, rather than an x; if no one has a majority on the basis of first choices, then the last-place candidate is knocked out, and their second choices are distributed amongst the remaining candidates; this continues through successive rounds until one candidate crosses the 50% threshold. It’s like the Single Transferable Vote, on which British Columbians voted last year, only with single-member ridings rather than multiple. So whoever wins the riding at least can claim the support of a majority of voters, rather than a mere plurality, as under first-past-the-post. But they still get 100% of the representation, which is why it’s not a proportional system.
Labour, for their part, are apparently promising to implement AV without a referendum, arguing that it is not so substantial a change as to justify a referendum.
By Andrew Coyne - Thursday, December 4, 2008 at 8:44 PM - 290 Comments
It’s over: the day, the decision, the crisis, the coalition, and Stephane Dion’s leadership. After the abortive putsch — constitutional as it may have been — the field is strewn with bodies, and the bloodletting has just begun.
After a day of skulking in the corridors of Parliament, I can tell you that the Grits no longer have the stomach for this fight. You could see it in the their body language, hear it in their voices. Their comments to reporters were all variations on a plea to the government to “help us in off this limb we have put ourselves out on.” I’m paraphrasing, of course: they were actually itemizing the things the government had to do to keep them from defeating it in when Parliament returns in January. But a day or two ago, there was nothing it could do. The die was cast. The train had left the station. There was no turning back.
Apparently, they didn’t quite think this thing through — to say the least. In particular, they did not take into account the possibility of prorogation. That’s to their credit, perhaps: it’s a bloody awful business, certainly undemocratic and arguably unconstitutional (though the Governor General’s decision has presumably settled that), and perhaps it didn’t occur to them that Harper could be so unscrupulous. That they failed to foresee that is as huge a tactical error as Harper’s failure to foresee the emergence of the coalition itself.
With Parliament prorogued, the coalition is dead. The only way they were going to make this thing stick, even temporarily, was by way of a speedy assumption of power, the glue that mends all breaks. But having lunged and missed, they will be very much on their back feet. I repeat: The coalition is over. I’ll be surprised if it lasts the week.
But don’t take my word for it. Two polls out today show that the coalition has backfired on its two main participants — hugely. Ekos has the Tories ahead by twenty points, 44-24, while Ipsos Reid puts the margin at an astounding 46-23. This is after the Tories had supposedly disgraced themselves by the “provocation” of cutting the political parties off the public teat, and by failing to provide adequate “stimulus.”
Ipsos numbers show, further, that 60% of the public opposes the coalition, 62% are “angry” with it for trying to take power, while 68% support the Governor General’s decision. The Grits can read the numbers as well as I can. There is no way they will return to this well.
Indeed, the caucus, after a three hour meeting this afternoon, seems to have other priorities in mind — namely forcing Dion from the leadership ASAP, rather than wait until the May convention. That’s easier said than done, and is tangled up in the race to succeed him. For it only makes sense, if he is to be replaced quickly, to replace him with a permanent leader, and if the decision were made today it would almost certainly be Michael Ignatieff, and as Bob Rae can’t abide that, he will be doing everything in his power to see to it that Dion stays in place.
But assume that Ignatieff — notably skeptical about the coalition — does take over. Is it to be imagined that he would wish to submit himself, should he become Prime Minister, to the dictates of Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe? Not that there’s much danger of that. The coming collapse of the coalition will mean the Governor General would have no choice, should the opposition defeat the government over its budget in January, but to call fresh elections. And these disastrous polling numbers, if they stand up, make it highy unlikely that the opposition will do any such thing.
So the Tories have won this round, but by the ugliest of means. Was the Governor General right to be their enablers? I’m not sure she had any choice. There’s only one real test of confidence in our system, and that’s a vote of the Commons. The last such confidence vote, on the Throne Speech, was less than a week ago. So while it was common sense to assume that Harper was proroguing just to avoid losing the next one, it would take a nervy GG to disregard the advice of her First Minister without absolute cut-and-dried proof that had he had lost the House’s confidence.
Still, while there appear to be few if any formal conditions attached to the prorogation, she may well have attached some informal conditions — after all, what else did they talk about in the course of their two-and-a-half hour tete a tete? The sovereign has the right, as per Bagehot, “to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn.” She may well have warned him what would happen if he didn’t bring in a budget — and face a confidence test — at the first opportunity.
Harper should never have put the GG in this position. It would have been better from a number of perspectives for Harper to have faced the music in the Commons. But it’s at least better than demanding the GG call an election, as Harper might have tired. And, while the end does not justify the means, it would take a hard heart indeed not to cheer the death of the coalition.
By Susan Mohammad - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 7:00 PM - 3 Comments
It’s not pretty, but this is what she has to work with
Tomorrow, Governor-General Michaëlle Jean will likely meet privately with Stephen Harper, where it’s expected he will ask her to terminate, or prorogue, the current session of Parliament. The gambit would allow Harper to dodge a non-confidence vote scheduled for Monday, and thus avoid the humiliation of watching his seven-week-old government go down in defeat in the House of Commons.
Prorogation is Harper’s best bet for survival. However, requesting that the Governor-General suspend Parliament in order to allow the federal government to dodge a motion is unprecedented and Jean might not go for it. In fact, she’s already got another proposal on the table should she lean toward sending Harper back to the wolves: The Liberals and NDP want to take over from the Conservatives and govern with a coalition. But that’s just as unusual a solution as granting Harper’s request for a prorogation—and no less likely to silence critics of the Governor General’s role in the mess. So, what’s a Governor General to do?
Canadians, for what it’s worth, appear tempted by the thought of prolonging the misery. A national opinion poll by Angus Reid Strategies found 52 per cent of Canadians oppose proroguing Parliament; the same proportion opposes a Liberal-NDP coalition; and 68 per cent want nothing to do with another federal election campaign. So much for the wisdom of crowds.
Meanwhile, constitutional experts have been speculating all week over what Jean can (or will, or even should) do. Here’s a rundown of her options:
1) Grant Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament. This would allow the Conservatives to regroup and present a budget at the end of January, effectively a re-do for Jim Flaherty’s after his unusually combative fiscal update launched the current crisis. There are two major problems with this approach: it’s unclear whether the government would be any more stable in January than it is now; and it would leave Canada without an effective government for nearly two months while a financial crisis ravages the country’s economy.
2) Deny Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament and let his government face a non-confidence motion next Monday. This, in other words, is Jean’s “walk the plank” option. Harper’s government is facing a bulletproof non-confidence motion, scheduled for next Monday and supported by every opposition party in the House. The Conservatives are almost assured of defeat. Should the seemingly inevitable happen, Jean would still face a tough decision: Either she sends Canadians back to the polls, or she allows Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton to seize the reins of government. No one wants an election, but denying a request for prorogation and then installing a coalition seems destined to spark a messy Constitutional debate.
3) Allow a conditional prorogation. The Governor-General can make use of her reserve powers (her power to make decisions without the approval of another branch of government) to place conditions that severely restrict Harper’s authority until Parliament returns. For example, she could implement rules similar to those in place during election campaigns, during which a government can only operate on a basic level and can’t institute new policies or make appointments.
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 4:45 PM - 68 Comments
Getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? Don Martin has somehow got hold of an “exclusive tentative list of who’s in the Liberal-NDP coalition cabinet.” (Hoax alert!) Highlights: Jack Layton at Industry. Denis Coderre at Public Works. Dominic Leblanc at ACOA.
What about Environment? But of course: Senator Elizabeth May.
MEANWHILE: Frank McKenna, John Manley and Michael Ignatieff may want nothing to do with this monstrosity, but that doesn’t mean it lacks for endorsements. Ed Broadbent sees it as “an important step” towards “the dream of my life … a social-democratic government.”
Mr. Broadbent, who led the NDP for 14 years until 1989, said this week’s unprecedented deal to oust the Tories and install a Liberal-NDP coalition gives his party true power because New Democrats will be indispensable to keeping a Liberal prime minister in office.
Former Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau says he’s delighted and very satisfied with the Bloc Quebecois’ decision to join a coalition that could form the next federal government in Ottawa.
In an interview with the Journal de Montreal published Wednesday, Mr. Parizeau praises Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe for his “impressive victory,” in prying enough concessions out of the coalition of the New Democratic Party and Liberals to agree to back them.
His comments reflect those of the current PQ leader Pauline Marois who is using the crisis to advance her own cause in the provincial election campaign. She says the agreement allows Quebec to get $1-billion in equalization payments it would not have otherwise had. On the other hand, Ms. Marois also says the crisis shows the Canadian federation no longer functions and Quebec should separate.
But as the spiritual leader of the PQ hard line, Mr. Parizeau’s comments can only help Ms. Marois stir PQ supporters to vote for her.
“This victory sweeps aside any hesitation Quebecers might have had on the presence of the Bloc in Ottawa,” Mr. Parizeau said.
Let the explaining away begin!
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 2:24 PM - 19 Comments
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 12:55 PM - 62 Comments
To be clear: there is nothing unconstitutional or illegitimate in the notion of a coalition government, per se. Nor would the Governor General be committing any sin against democracy were she to disregard the prime minister’s advice, following his defeat in a confidence vote, and call upon the coalition to form a government, rather than dissolve Parliament and call new elections. Constitutional scholars are virtually unanimous that she has that option, and only slightly less so that she should in fact exercise it.
But it is not a slam dunk. She must take into consideration whether the coalition is likely to last, or whether its in-built volatility is such as to condemn Canada to a prolonged period of instability and uncertainty. But even if she does hand them the keys — and that is much the more probable result: whatever misgivings she might have, she would doubtless feel she lacked the legitimacy to exercise such discretion — that doesn’t make it a good idea.
My beef is not with the notion of a coalition, as such. It is with this coalition, at this time. My criticisms are not that it is undemocratic, but that it is unstable; not that it is illegitimate, but that it is misdirected and unjustified. (The opposition is entitled to vote no confidence in the government for any reason it likes — but I am entitled to say that the reasons it offers are humbug.) The policies it pursues are, in my judgement, likely to prove calamitous for the country, and ruinous for the Liberal party. But if that is what the majority of the House decides, that is how our system works.
Up to a point. The public’s views of the result cannot simply be ignored. It may be that the Conservatives are appealing to popular ignorance of parliamentary government, with their demands for an election before any change of government. But it may also be that there is a broader question of legitimacy at play: past a certain point, if a thing is rejected by the public, it becomes illegitimate. This is such a bizarre situation, such an extreme application of the traditional Parliamentary prerogative to choose a government — defeating a government so soon after an election, and propping up such a rickety contraption in its place, even leaving aside the question of the Bloc’s involvement — that the public’s response may well be, like the child in the New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”
MOREOVER: A number of people have written to ask how I could have a problem with the coalition, given my support for proportional representation, with its tendency to produce coalition governments. But the two are entirely separable questions. First, as I say above, I have particular problems with this coalition, as opposed to coalitions in general. But second, and more fundamentally: the present situation is not a template for what would obtain under PR.
A minority government is a very different thing under first-past-the-post than under PR, and so would be the coalitions that arise. There would be different parties, with different bases — less geographical, more ideological — and different incentives: whereas FPTP, with its highly leveraged outcomes — a 2 per cent swing in the popular vote leading to a 60 seat swing in Parliamentary representation — encourages parties to push the button on an election the minute they think they have the upper hand, under PR there is no such payoff — a 2% swing means 2% more seats — and no such incentive. As a result, modern PR systems tend to be more stable, not less, than FPTP. And the coalitions are typically formed before elections, not after: the National Party and the Liberals in Australia run as a ticket, as do the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union (and, more often than not, the Free Democrats) in Germany.
Under PR, there would be fewer Bloc seats, and thus less likelihood that it would hold the balance of power. There would be more parties, and thus more possible coalition partners. And there would be much less incentive to partisan rancor: majority governing coalitions would be formed, not by splitting votes, but by combining them.
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 12:16 PM - 114 Comments
So, just to review the bidding: If the coalition has its way, we would be governed by a party that won 26% of the vote barely six weeks ago, that has just a quarter of the seats in the Commons, that is a minority within its own coalition. It would be led by a man who, however massively he may have been rejected by the public at large, has even less support within his own party; who was in the process of being given the bum’s rush, but who will now pause, on his way out the door, to govern the country — for six months. The cabinet he convenes will be absent two of its most prominent members, either de jure or de facto, as they tour the country campaigning to succeed him.
It will, however, contain six New Democrats, whose job will be to push as hard as they can for as much as they can in the short time the coalition is likely to last. It will be similarly beholden to the Bloc for its survival, serving at their pleasure, vulnerable to a Bloc decision to withdraw its support every single day of the week.
And he will be powerless to resist either of them. He will have no legitimacy, no authority, no base of support. His party could not possibly endure another election, even with public funds; theirs could. His sole job will be to pay them ransom, in regular installments, until the whole thing collapses of its own weight — probably in a matter of weeks. It isn’t just that the coalition is made up of parties with wholly incompatible agendas. At some point, somebody will miscalculate, push too hard, overplay their hand. Or, most likely, either the NDP or the Bloc — possibly both — will decide, once they have milked the Liberals dry, that it would be better to provoke an election in the spring, while Dion is still leader, than wait until May, and the arrival of another, presumably more popular Liberal leader. (Oh, but it could not happen, Dion replies: he has a piece of paper. Please. Whipping up “betrayals,” is the Bloc’s life’s work. They do that sort of thing in their sleep: “This is not what we signed onto. The Liberals have not lived up to their end of the bargain. etc. etc.” The 18 month “commitment” is meaningless. It’s an agreement to support the government until they don’t.)
I know a good many Liberals who are utterly aghast at where this is taking their party. Simply put, Dion is driving them off a cliff. If Harper overplayed his hand at the start of this fiasco, Dion has returned the favour. That picture of Dion, Duceppe and Layton together on the podium will be featured in every Tory attack ad from here to kingdom come. It will burn its way into the public mind. At one stroke, Dion has legitimized the NDP as a party of government, marginalized his own party as a party of the left, and delivered the government of Canada into the trembling hands of the Bloc. To all intents and purposes, this will be an NDP-Bloc government. The Liberals are simply the front, propped up in the shop window to give the thing respectability.
That, at any rate, will be the perception. And it is one that can only lead to the ruin of the Liberal party: when, not if, the coalition collapses, it will be the Liberals who will be consumed in the fires that will then rage. So the question becomes: When will the grown-ups in the party take charge? Already we are seeing some cracks in the Liberals’ resolve. Quietly, through surrogates, Michael Ignatieff has let his discomfort with the arrangement be known. A couple of the Liberal “wise men” who supposedly were to guide the coalition’s economic policies have publicly disowned the idea.
But if the party is to be preserved from the abyss towards which it is hurtling, somebody is going to have to grab the wheel. It’s not enough to hope that the Governor General will dissolve Parliament before then, or that Harper will prorogue Parliament. The first is unlikely, and the second only postpones the inevitable. Somebody needs to speak out, now.
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 11:18 AM - 63 Comments
- The opposition parties did not have to bring down the government over the fall economic statement., whatever “provocations” it contained. They chose to. They had other options (aside from simply agreeing to rely more on voluntary donations, and less on the taxpayer). They could have proposed amendments. They could have stalled, filibustered, tied up parliamentary business. They could have demanded the resignation of the Finance minister. Instead, they went straight to the nuclear option.
They did so, as has since become clear, not because they were forced to, but because they could. They — the Bloc and the NDP at least — had been planning this for some time. All they needed was the pretext, and the government gave it to them. Leave aside that surreptitiously taped conference call. Our own Mitch Raphael was reporting a month ago on the nascent coalition plans.
It’s clear that the NDP was the one driving this. The initial Liberal response to the statement was much more cautious. It was the NDP that first declared “war,” forcing the Liberals to fall in behind them. Layton, in effect, rolled Dion. And Dion rolled his party: the whole deal was cooked up out of Dion’s office without any apparent consultation, either with the national executive or the various leadership camps.
- The government shares responsiblity for the mess we’re in, then, but only indirectly. That is, it should have guessed how the opposition would respond. It should have known what they were up to. It should have been more careful not to give them the opening they needed. They, too, had other options: they could have delayed implementation of the party funding changes, for example. But it’s a tactical error, not a moral one. There’s nothing wrong in principle with requiring parties to finance themselves.
And there’s nothing wrong with tying it to an economic package. In the next few months, possibly years, governments are going to have to say no to a lot of interests (unless it is proposed that they should bail out everyone). Is there not something more than a little unseemly in the image of a political party continuing to feast at the public trough, even as it is pushing others away? “Sorry, there’s no money in the till for you. But there’s just enough for us.”
- Should Stephen Harper wear this? Of course. It was his decision, and his error. Some have attributed this to hubris. I think it is rather timidity. It is of a piece with the whole strategy the party has pursued over the past several years. Rather than openly advocate a particular course of action — rather than clearly articulate a distinctive philosophy of government and a program of government that flows from it, they have relied on trickery, surprises, tacitcal manoeuvres — and sometimes on sheer thuggery. They don’t have the confidence that they can win the arguments on their merits, that they can beat their opponents, as it were, on the ice. So instead they try to lick ‘em in the alley.
By Andrew Coyne - Monday, December 1, 2008 at 3:10 PM - 208 Comments
Roger Gibbins offers a way for the Governor General to get us all out of this mess: Just Say No. Don’t call an election. Don’t hand power to an unstable and potentially destructive coalition. Simply refuse the Prime Minister’s resignation, and send him back to Parliament, with instructions to find a consensus on his economic plan. Discuss.